For the entire 70 minutes of When Angels Fall, no words are uttered onstage other than the chorus of a nursery rhyme, “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do”; indistinct shouts into the horn of a gramophone; and “you,” repeated hesitantly several times over the course of about a minute.
Creator, director, and choreographer Raphaëlle Boitel doesn’t want words to be the focus of her play, so there are none that carry much significance. When Angels Fall relies instead on the actors’ exaggerated and acrobatic movements to develop the characters, the original, tense soundtrack by Arthur Bison to propagate the mood, and the barren set to create the tone.
At the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, for only five days—until Feb. 24—When Angels Fall depicts humanity’s fragility and resilience in a hostile alternate reality. Living in a society under the jurisdiction of machines, a young girl (Emily Zuckerman) tries to break the silence she’s inherited from her subservient human species. With support, protection, and anxiety radiating from the other human characters, the interrelated dynamics are difficult to pin down. Although the audience doesn’t know whether their relationships exist in a romantic, familial, or communal sense, they inevitably simplify and evolve into the most necessary and humane connections based on hope and support.
Considering the physical intensity demanded from them, this cast had to be versatile—the actors’ histories include performances in everything from ballets and plays to circuses. In this play, they were challenged to emit love to one another and fear to the machines through only their physical projections. With their actions, they represent humanity, one collective against the rest of the world.
Boitel’s work, she said, is a societal critique—it mirrors our relationships with technology while also responding to humanity’s role in combating climate change. She characterizes the dystopian work as a tragic comedy: The society inspired by Plato’s Allegory of the Cave necessitates comic relief, which her Chaplin-inspired slapstick provides. Yet, no matter the humor that comes from their actions—aggressive hushes, as much of a reflex as a sneeze; therapeutic arm flapping; and bodies playing with other bodies like they’re dolls—an underlying unease persists.
At times, they perform tragic dances with unwavering control. Other instances, their bodies jerk frantically, thrashing in unnatural contortions that convey the technological dominance in this society. Boitel, having studied at the National School of Circus Arts under Annie Fratellini since the age of 6, drew on her own experience with theatrical and circus performance. The play contains movements deeply rooted in aerial, dance, contortion, and traditional theatre—or as Boitel calls it, “poetry with the body.”
No matter how poetic their physicality is, the lack of words causes an uncomfortable awareness of their significance. Without that essential aspect of theatre, When Angels Fall emphasizes the other elements even more than a play usually would. Daunting light fixtures make up the set. Dramatic lighting conveys distorted realities.
But a lack of words also enables the play to be an international and cross-cultural experience. It doesn’t need to be translated because our bodies’ movements are a universal language: As long as the actors can physically perform the intended movements, the meaning will always remain.
Take Alba Faivre’s role. Faivre, a recognized aerial artist who has worked with Boitel for about five years, performs an extended solo routine on a on a moving Chinese pole, which is suspended from the ceiling but detached from the ground. Climbing and falling with grace and deliberate exertion, her movements monologize the themes of hope and persistence amid adversity. The audience’s gasps and focus were indicative of their recognition of that.
Since the stage lacks the language to captivate the audience, the play requires the crowd’s undivided attention, so that the plot is not lost. The responsibility doesn’t just lie on the actors. Odds are, though, parts of it won’t translate. To conceive an entirely alternate reality is a challenge—to transmit a complete delivery of it without any verbal interactions is virtually impossible.
“They [audience members] don’t have to understand everything,” Boitel said. “But I think they will understand the most important of what we want to say. And what we want to say, what the message of this show is, is hope. Even if it’s a difficult one.
“An angel… is the best representation of all the good aspects of the human being. What I’m really interested in is human beings and the best aspects of human nature, which tend to be buried more and more by this society—confusing society—sometimes.”
Featured Image from Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre